Flying After Diving – What’s the Big Deal?


One of the best things about scuba diving is that you can do it practically anywhere in the world! You might have even created a diving destination “bucket list.” To get to these places, you usually need to fly.

Naturally, you want to spend as much time as possible in the water. If you have an afternoon or evening flight home, you might wonder if you can fit in a dive or two before you have to head to the airport! While it sounds appealing, the much safer option is to spend your day on the beach or exploring something on land, not adventuring under the sea.

Why Is Flying After Diving Dangerous?

Flying too soon after diving can cause decompression sickness (DCS). Most divers are familiar with “the bends,” or decompression sickness (DCS), and how to avoid it while diving. However, some ignore the risks of flying too soon after diving.

What is Decompression Sickness?

DCS occurs when your body is in a high pressure environment (e.g., underwater) and you move too quickly from that high pressure environment to a lower pressure environment (e.g., sea level). Nitrogen from the air you breath dissolves into your blood when you’re exposed to pressure. The nitrogen gradually clears out as you exhale. If the nitrogen isn’t given enough time to clear out, it can form into bubbles that enter your tissues, which is dangerous and painful.

The absolute worst-case scenario is an embolism, which can be deadly. An embolism occurs when the nitrogen bubbles form in your blood. As the bubbles travel, your arteries become obstructed and blood cannot reach vital organs.

Residual Nitrogen: Even if you ascend properly on your last dive and do a safety stop, you still have residual nitrogen in your body that takes time to dissipate.

Why Does Flying After Diving Cause Decompression Sickness?

Like ascending too quickly, which is moving from exposure to a lot of pressure to less, taking off on a plane a few hours after checking out a reef is basically the same thing — moving from higher pressure to lower pressure.

If you hop on a plane and ascend to a flying altitude, that residual nitrogen does the same thing as if you ascend too quickly from a dive. It turns into the dangerous bubbles because the air pressure inside the plane is less than it is at sea level.

Beyond Flying:

To complicate things more, it doesn’t even take a plane to get decompression sickness after diving. Air pressure decreases the farther you go from sea level, which again, is similar to ascending too quickly from a dive. High altitudes should be avoided in general, so no driving up to that volcano after diving offshore in Hawaii!

What Can Happen If I Fly Too Soon?

If you develop decompression sickness and it is not treated quickly (and you can’t treat it when you’re airborne), you can be at an increased risk for a host of lifelong problems, such as:

  • joint arthritis
  • brittle bones
  • spinal cord injury
  • bladder dysfunction
  • sexual dysfunction
  • muscular weakness

These consequences are unpleasant to say the least. As we mention above, an embolism can kill you.

How Soon Is Too Soon?

Dive organizations have created minimum waiting periods for flying after diving for different situations. However, the recommendations vary and other factors must be considered.

For example, for a single dive within the no-decompression limits, the following waiting times are recommended:

  • 2 Hours – U.S. Navy
  • 12 Hours – Divers Alert Network (DAN)
  •  24 hours – U.S. Air Force

Other factors you must consider are:

  • Multiple dives require longer waiting times than a single dive – 18 hours is the minimum recommended wait time
  • Your overall health – if you’re overweight, some believe the nitrogen takes longer to dissipate from fat tissue compared to lean
  • Is there a hyperbaric chamber near your final destination if you did develop DCS?

Although these recommendations are minimums, DAN, as well as other organizations, believe that the longer you can stay grounded after your last dive, the better. A generous 24-hour period is considered the wisest choice, regardless of what kind of diving you did.

Play It Safe!

What’s the rush? No dive is so important that it is worth gambling your health. Consider your last day of your trip to be your ultimate “safety stop” and make it fun – fish, rent a jet ski, kayak or bike, hike, take a tour, explore a museum or other local attraction, or just relax and read — and start planning your next dive trip, knowing you’ll arrive home with no risk of developing decompression sickness.

If you want to learn more about diving safely, consider taking a rescue course. If you live in the Dallas area, Scuba Toys offers regularly scheduled rescue courses year-round. Swing by our Carrollton shop, call us at 877-728-2243, or check out our website!

Have you ever experienced decompression sickness symptoms after flying? Let us know in the comments section below!

Article Name
Flying After Diving – What’s the Big Deal?
Many of us have heard the warning that flying too soon after scuba diving isn't a good idea - here's what you need to know.

3 responses to “Flying After Diving – What’s the Big Deal?”

  1. Tim says:

    I try to plan my trips such that I can relax before flying out. After rushing to get to my destination and spending so much time taking it in, I try not to plan a dive or much else for the last 24 hours.

  2. Mel says:

    We’re casual divers so we typically plan a dive or two mid-week and don’t have to worry about pushing it to close to our flight out.

  3. Jeff says:

    A buddy of mine got decompression sickness from diving (not flying) and it was serious. I try to observe all the recommendations to avoid it myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Keep up with SCUBA news, trips and gear!